How to navigate political disagreements at work

Apr 23, 2024

6 mins

How to navigate political disagreements at work

The workplace has become a microcosm of broader societal dynamics as political and social tensions are reflected in our interactions there. This is not just about diversity of thought but also about the challenges and conflicts that can arise when different viewpoints are voiced. You’ve seen it before: office rows over election results, policy changes, and even public health measures can turn camaraderie into antagonism.

Since 2020, which saw the emergence of the pandemic at the start of the year and the presidential election towards the end, there has been an uptick in political discussions and political volatility at work, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2022 Politics at Work study. It says that 45% of US workers “have personally experienced political disagreements at work,” while 20% – one in five – report having been treated poorly by coworkers or peers due to their political views. It’s not just about conversation either. Nearly 30% of US workers say they have faced jokes about their political affiliation, and 13% say they have experienced bullying due to their beliefs.

So, why all the hostility? To help you to answer that question and to navigate these types of discussions, our Lab expert, Nate Shalev, offers their view on what constitutes a political conversation in the workplace and how you can get involved if you want to during this contentious election year.

Why are we so openly political right now?

Living in an age of activism

In an era marked by heightened activism, legislative changes, and cultural shifts, every headline seems to ignite new debates or highlight polarizing ideals. Movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have not only ignited vital discussions on equity and justice but have also intensified discourse within the professional sphere, bringing issues previously deemed inappropriate for the workplace into the heart of conversations.

“[The political climate] is deeply impacting people’s ability to live their lives freely,” says Shalev. “Generally, democracy feels a little bit tenuous right now. And because it feels existential, I think more so than previous elections, people feel there’s a pressure to talk about [political issues].” This is especially true for those striving for social justice, as they may feel the need to talk about such topics with colleagues. “For instance, with the surge of anti-trans legislative bills in the US, discussions that were once taboo are becoming normalized, making it more comfortable to voice opinions that would have been restrained before,” says Shalev. This also makes others feel compelled to speak up in response.

A new generation with new demands

These recent global social movements have not only elevated conversations about gender equity, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights but have also prompted organizations to reevaluate their internal policies and cultures, blurring the intersection between business operations and social responsibility.

A recent study by Deloitte, the 2023 Global Gen Z and Millennial Survey, shows that Gen Z and Millennials believe companies are responsible for addressing social issues – even though they are skeptical that business generally is having a positive societal impact. The survey ranks business leaders as the third most important group, after politicians and social justice/sustainability advocates, in tackling these challenges.

“There’s a growing expectation for companies to take a stand on these issues, a shift not strongly felt before,” says Shalev. “This demand is particularly pronounced among [younger generations] and new entrants to the workforce, who value and seek out organizations [whose principles align with theirs].”

However, while diversity in background and belief systems can be a source of strength and innovation in a business, it can also lead to conflict, as not all colleagues’ beliefs will align.

Is it a political opinion or just bias?

For Shalev, the line between political discourse and personal bias is often blurred. “A ‘political opinion’ is often used to mask a bias or avoid discomfort,” Shalev says. So, how do we know if we are taking part in or even observing a political discussion? There are clues. Take healthcare, for example. “We can argue about the best ways to deliver healthcare,” Shalev says. “However, debating whether people deserve healthcare altogether is different. That’s where the distinction lies – between debating policy and questioning basic human rights. Discussions that delve into areas like livelihood, identity, or core human values go beyond politics, even if they’re politicized.”

Shalev gives an example from personal experience: “If someone approaches me, claiming that discussing trans rights is bringing politics into the workplace, I’d explain, ‘I’m not representing a political stance; I’m simply being myself.’” Shalev argues that if we can personalize our discussion, reminding everyone we’re talking about real human experience, not abstract ideas, we can foster a workplace environment that values empathy and understanding over division.

“Often, the contention isn’t with the topic itself but with a sense of imposition or neglected needs,” they add. “Thus, addressing these concerns directly helps illuminate that the discussion – while politicized – is fundamentally about respecting individual identities and needs.”

We bring our whole selves to work, complete with the concerns and challenges we face outside the office. Shalev says that navigating social spaces comfortably is not just an abstract issue. For those directly affected, these are pressing, personal matters that don’t simply pause during work hours.

Creating space for dialogue rather than division

The modern workforce is more diverse than at any point in history, encompassing a wide range of ethnicities, religions, gender identities, and political beliefs. While this diversity is a significant asset to creativity and problem-solving, it introduces a variety of perspectives that, when discussions turn to sensitive topics, can lead to misunderstandings or conflicts. The challenge lies in fostering an inclusive culture where diverse opinions are respected and dialogue on political and social issues can occur without alienating any team members.

The SHRM 2022 Politics at Work Study highlights disparities in perceptions of inclusivity based on political ideology. Liberal and moderate workers report a higher sense of inclusivity, with 70% of liberals and 73% of moderates feeling that their organization’s employees are open to different political views. In contrast, only 60% of conservative workers share this sentiment, highlighting a notable gap in perceptions of political inclusivity.

These findings suggest that, while US workplaces may strive to create an environment that welcomes a variety of political opinions, it doesn’t always happen. So, how can we make everyone feel included?

The importance of creating a shared vision

Creating an inclusive workplace requires a collective effort. This starts with ensuring everyone shares the same vision. “Research supports the notion that inclusivity leads to better workplace outcomes,” explains Shalev. “However, recognizing the value of diversity is just the initial step.” Shalev believes that colleagues should set clear boundaries and, if those boundaries are crossed, they should have reparative conversations following the incident.

Get ready to talk about sensitive issues

Initiating conversations around difficult topics — such as upcoming elections or hot topics highlighted in the media — can feel daunting, especially in a large office. But it’s worth making the effort. “It’s generally better to talk about the issues head-on by asking open-ended questions and genuinely seeking to understand different viewpoints,” says Shalev.

However, Shalev recognizes that not everyone may feel comfortable diving into these discussions. “For those who hesitate, establishing clear boundaries becomes essential. For instance, when addressing contentious topics, frame the conversation appropriately by explaining the potential harm of certain phrases, suggesting alternatives, and clarifying the stakes involved.

Using this framework helps participants navigate the conversation mindfully, considering the impact of their words. What may seem like a mere political debate could carry deeper implications for some, and addressing these topics brings real-life implications to the forefront, grounding the conversation in empathy.

The power of reparative conversations

What can be missing from workplace discussions are ‘reparative’ conversations, in other words, discussions that address conflicts, acknowledge any harm caused, and enable colleagues to work through issues together. “These discussions, which I focus on in my work, ensure that when issues occur, they’re addressed in a manner that values personal growth and collective harmony,” Shalev adds. “Traditional workplace cultures, heavily influenced by legal considerations, may shy away from these necessary conversations due to fear of formal repercussions such as termination or resignation. However, repairing relationships and fostering understanding go beyond formalized processes. We’re all human, with our complexities, and acknowledging this can transform how conflicts are resolved.

It’s important not to expect too much from such discussions, according to Shalev. “More often than not, those conversations can end with saying, ‘We’re only going to get so far, but here’s how we need to show up at work for each other,’ and [then outlining] how respect might look among colleagues. You don’t have to change your views, you just have to show up at work in a way where everyone’s going to feel included.” This practical approach to inclusivity and respect highlights the continuous effort needed to cultivate an environment where every individual feels valued and understood.

Fostering a respectful environment at work

Shalev says that employers have a responsibility to get involved too. Fostering a culture of inclusion means making sure it is embedded in every aspect of the organization, from HR to marketing to operations. “Our workplaces are made up of people… when our people are feeling good, our work is going to be better,” Shalev says. “Employers should create structured opportunities for open dialogue that holds space for employees to share perspectives, [should] equip employees with communication and conflict-resolution skills, and [should] ensure clear processes for reporting disrespectful behavior or bias that doesn’t rise to the legal level of discrimination.”

With November 2024 fast approaching, it might be a good idea to learn how to discern genuine political opinion from bias. With time, we can all agree to disagree and still be respectful not only in the workplace but also in our everyday lives. “It’s about demonstrating what respect for a colleague might entail,” Shalev says. “There’s no requirement to alter your spectrum of views, but [you should] conduct yourself in a manner that ensures everyone feels included at work… Conversations should respect individual rights without dehumanizing anyone, balancing between open dialogue and respect for all individuals.”

Photo: Thomas Descamps for Welcome to the Jungle

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